ATP Finals: Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer arrive in London with history in their sights
In many ways, Novak Djokovic has finished 2018 in the same way Roger Federer started it.
After lifting his 20th Grand Slam title in Melbourne, Federer returned to the summit of the ATP rankings in Rotterdam and looked the most unstoppable player on the planet.
It feels a long time ago.
Since defeating Grigor Dimitrov in the ABN AMRO World Tennis Tournament final, the Swiss has failed to beat a top-10 player for the rest of the season.
Thats not to say its been a complete disaster. Most players can only dream of winning four tour-level titles in the same year, but Federers displays have left many to conclude that this truly is the beginning of the end for the sports most decorated man.
Federer's 2018 record v top-10
Win: 6-2 6-7 6-3 3-6 6-1 Cilic (6) Australian Open final
Win: 6-2 6-2 Dimitrov (5) Rotterdam final
Loss: 4-6 7-6 6-7 Del Potro (8) Indian Wells final
Loss: 6-2 7-6 5-7 4-6 11-13 Anderson (8) Wimbledon quarter-finals
Loss: 4-6 4-6 Djokovic (10) Cincinnati final
Loss: 6-7 7-5 6-7 Djokovic (2) Paris semi-finals
His decline has run parallel to Djokovics supreme rise to the top.
The Serb has become the first man to end a season as world No. 1 having fallen outside the top-20 within that same year, while also becoming the only player to win all nine Masters 1000 events as well as equalling Pete Sampras haul of 14 Grand Slam titles with victories at Wimbledon and the US Open.
His five months of near-flawless performances were preceded by a lengthy spell of soul-searching, which culminated from a loss of fitness and form.
But while many dipped their quills in ink to paint the writing on the wall for Djokovic, who admitted to contemplating throwing in the towel, he has wrestled back control to be the author of another record-breaking chapter in history – becoming the oldest year-end No. 1 in the process.
I am very proud, Djokovic said Friday. It is extra special this year because of the whole journey Ive been through, particularly the last eight, 10 months.
After Februarys elbow surgery, it looked quite improbable that I would be in this position as the year-end No. 1.
Ahead of the final tournament in 2018, theres a feeling that Djokovics latest period of extreme dominance will coincide with Federers last hurrah, but things can change very quickly in tennis.
The 37-year-old Swiss pushed the Serb – who was, admittedly, under the weather – all the way in the semi-finals of the Paris Masters to give a timely reminder that he is still a major force in the mens game and enters the season-ending ATP Finals as the clear favourite to join Djokovic in the final at the O2.
Rafael Nadals withdrawal ensured the pair were kept apart, with Federer the top-seeded player in group Lleyton Hewitt ahead of Kevin Anderson, Dominic Thiem and Kei Nishikori and Djokovic leading Alexander Zverev, Marin Cilic and John Isner in group Guga Kuerten.
ATP Finals Groups
It would be a major surprise if they didnt both progress in whats a largely inexperienced field.
Only Nishikori has reached the semi-finals of this event in the past, with Anderson and Isner making their debuts at the O2.
Given Federers two wins over Nishikori in Shanghai and Paris in the past month, it would be a shock if he didnt immediately end his eight-month wait for a top-10 win on Sunday against the Japanese but he will have his sights set on a far greater prize.
Most Open Era singles titles
109 – Connors
99 – Federer
94 – Lendl
80 – Nadal
77 – McEnroe
74 – Laver
72 – Djokovic
Most prolific ATP Finals winners
6 – Federer
5 – Djokovic
5 – Sampras
5 – Lendl
4 – Nastase
3 – Becker
3 – McEnroe
A historic 100th tour-level title is within his grasp, although he is without a title in London since 2011.
Dominating the field isnt very easy, Federer said.
I think its really only Novak at this point [who] is the only person who can say, “If I play as well as I have the last few months, maybe I can also win the World Tour Finals”.
Though Djokovic has looked largely unstoppable, Federers resurgence in Paris will no doubt give hope that he can become just the second man – after Jimmy Connors (109) – to win a century of tour titles.
Should he fail, it seems likely that Djokovic will join Federer as the joint-most successful man at this prestigious event with a sixth crown.